A world where kids gleefully rule

Philadelphia: Please Touch Museum lets children have fun while learning.

Short Hop

June 20, 1999|By Terry Conway | Terry Conway,Special to the Sun

It's a totally plugged-in experience for the Sesame Street crowd. Take, for example, Artie, the life-size sculptured elephant, assembled from recycled odds and ends. Kids pull its piece-of-rope tail and lovingly wrap their arms around Artie's trunk, made from flexible hose.

Young faces light up at the "Let's Make Music" exhibit, which features a 16-foot-long ukulele, a 12-foot-long keyboard octave and a stockpile of instruments.

Across the room, you'll find "Move It," where youngsters can operate a cargo crane at the port, sail a boat on the Delaware River or take a ride on the city bus. Kids hop into the driver's seat, latch onto the wheel and blast the horn. Parents are dispatched to the back of the bus.

Each week, long lines of wide-eyed children pass through the front doors of Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum, and they call the shots.

"Where else in their lives can children do this?" asks Nancy Kolb, president of the museum. "Everywhere else they're under the control of someone else. They learn all kind of things, and don't even know they're learning. A bus is something they see almost every day, but in the real world, they'd never be able to grab the wheel and toot the horn.

"You watch the kids pick up on things and it's reflected in their entire body, gleefully and joyfully."

The Please Touch Museum is the great-granddaddy of the region's children's museums, designed for kids ages 1 to 7. Founded in 1976 by educators, artists and parents, the hands-on museum attracts 185,000 paying visitors annually; another 145,000 Philadelphia schoolchildren visit annually free of charge.

For kids, this museum in center city just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a place to learn, play, have fun and grow. It's an ideal first-museum experience, stimulating curiosity through hands-on exhibits, programs and collections that encourage adult-child interaction.

Walking to the far end of the museum, guests come face to face with a hand-painted wall depicting a peaceful forest. Set in the middle is a three-dimensional tree with the likeness of a grinning Cheshire Cat reclining on one of the limbs. The image is bracketed by a giant book that is opened to the quote, "What's the use of a book without pictures?"

Welcome to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Please Touch's largest ever exhibit opens Friday and is fashioned around the classic children's book written by Lewis Carroll and hauntingly illustrated by Sir John Tenniel. The construction of the exhibit was funded with a $167,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Each guest becomes Alice and embarks on an adventure to uncover the treasures of Wonderland. Visitors wander past the tree into a darkened, winding corridor that mimics the rabbit hole. As a silhouette of the white rabbit darts across the floor, visitors fall down the rabbit hole, then encounter a vine-covered hedge they must break through to officially enter Wonderland.

Once placed in the imaginative world, guests can elect to turn left to the Tea Party, go straight ahead for a game of croquet with the Queen of Hearts, or hang a right into the Hall of Doors and Mirrors. If you head to the Tea Party, you can mingle at a table with life-size creations of the Mad Hatter and March Hare. Hanging on one of the walls is a cluster of clocks -- everything from a sundial to a stop watch. If you move the hands of the grandfather clock, a book next to it illuminates, revealing a jovial riddle.

The beguiling puzzle "Who Stole The Tarts?" winds its way throughout the exhibit and encourages a challenging game of seek and find.

All around the two-story museum, children revel in the interactive exhibits. At "Studio PTM," kids can appear on camera and report the day's headlines from locations throughout the Philadelphia area. From behind the new control panel, budding producers can press buttons that display different images on the screen.

Over at "Super Market Science," kids wheel minicarts around a well-fortified supermarket, while keeping tabs on the bill with abacus-like sliding blocks attached to each cart. It also features a kitchen and laboratory where children can cook and experiment or learn about kitchen safety procedures and precautions.

At "Barnyard Babies," children jump on a tractor, milk a cow, dress scarecrows in a cornfield and peek inside a birdhouse to discover a mother feeding her young sons. Guests enter the farm through a gate and come across a screened-in henhouse, where kids can nuzzle fuzzy baby chicks. In a sunflower field, children can peer at their own reflection at different heights in the mirrored faces of the sunflowers.

Kolb, who has been the museum's president and CEO since 1988, oversees an annual operating budget of $2.8 million and a staff of 50 employees. She calls her work a dream job and she's pressing to expand that vision. The nonprofit museum is planning on being part of the Penns Landing entertainment center adjacent to the Delaware River in early 2001.

"This is a special place and we all have a lot of fun," says Kolb. "Our goal is simple: We don't necessarily want to build exhibits, we want to build experiences.

"It's that ah-ha! That magical moment. Here it happens everyday."

WHEN YOU GO ...

What: Please Touch Museum

Where: 210 N. 21st St., Philadelphia

Hours: July 1-Labor Day: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (remainder of the year 9 a.m.-4 p.m.); open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day

Admission: $6.95; children under 1 are free.

Information: 215-963-0667; www.libertynet.org/pleastch

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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